BY SEAN COCKERHAM
Think pot is now legal in California? Try telling that to the National Park Service rangers ready to bust people caught with marijuana in Yosemite, Redwood, Death Valley and other federal lands across the state.
The federal government says it’s not backing off on citing people who are caught with marijuana in California’s national parks, monuments, recreational areas and other federal lands regardless of the landslide vote that legalized recreational marijuana in the state.
“Marijuana – recreational, medical or otherwise – remains prohibited on federal public lands and property, regardless of state laws,” said Andrew Munoz, Pacific West spokesman for the National Park Service. “So there is no change: We will continue to enforce marijuana prohibition as before.”
That’s going to come as an unpleasant surprise to people, said Mike Mitchell, a Fresno defense attorney who has represented people busted for pot in Yosemite.
“I’d anticipate more people thinking now that it is legal in the park,” Mitchell said. “A lot of people don’t recognize that you are going into a completely different jurisdiction; it’s just like going into a different state. A lot of people don’t know that. They just think they’re going into a park, like any other California park.”
It’s been an issue in states that had legalized marijuana previously, where people are being cited for weed possession on federal land in spite of President Barack Obama’s declaration that it wasn’t a priority to go after people who were following their states’pot laws.
President-elect Donald Trump has shown no inclination to change course, appointing staunch anti-marijuana Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as attorney general.
The level of federal enforcement appears to depend on the state. Few people seem to get busted anymore for taking joints into Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, a state that legalized pot in 2012, said Brian Vicente, partner at a national Denver-based law firm that specializes in marijuana issues.
“But in New Jersey and in Washington state, they’re still seeing these cases ending up in federal court. Typically it’s misdemeanor possession,” Vicente said. “It’s folks thinking, ‘Oh, marijuana is legal in Washington state,’ or they’re a medical marijuana patient in New Jersey, which doesn’t have fully legal marijuana, and then they’re getting cited for possession.”
A LOT OF THE TIMES, AT LEAST THE CASES I’VE HAD HAVE BEEN VEHICLE STOPS, WHERE THEY’RE STOPPED FOR SOME OTHER ISSUE.
Mike Mitchell, a Fresno defense attorney who has represented people busted for pot in Yosemite
At least 146 people were cited in Washington state for having pot on federal land over seven months immediately following that state’s vote to legalize in 2012. Vicente suspects federal officials in California might go somewhat easier.
“My guess is we’ll see a trend away from those citations. Legalization passed by a pretty wide margin in California, and I think that sends a message,” Vicente said. “California has had medical marijuana since 1996, and I think it’s become more of an ingrained part of their society in a way that it hasn’t in New Jersey.”
The most marijuana citations in California’s parks are issued at Yosemite, which is the state’s most visited national park and has a history of more pot busts than any other national park in the United States.
“A lot of the times, at least the cases I’ve had, have been vehicle stops, where they’re stopped for some other issue, like a tail light being out or swerving or something along those lines,” said Fresno defense lawyer Mitchell. “And then they smell the odor of marijuana supposedly coming from the vehicle.”
Sometimes people think there is no problem because they have medical marijuana cards, Mitchell said, “but they didn’t realize that because they are in federal jurisdiction that the card didn’t apply.”
Yosemite issued 465 marijuana citations and made 123 pot-related arrests in the past two years, according to National Park Service data released through the Freedom of Information Act.
Fines for marijuana citations in California’s national parks depend on district courts but often end up being $200 or so. Arrests are rare, unless the case involves large amounts of concentrated cannabis, probation violations or another crime, like gun possession or drunken driving.
Golden Gate National Recreational Area in San Francisco was second to Yosemite in marijuana cases, with 175 incidents of pot-related citations, arrests or warnings the past year.
Park rangers can let marijuana slide with just a warning. At Joshua Tree National Park outside Los Angeles, “We only cite for this if there are other drugs involved,” said Acting Chief Ranger Dan Messaros.
“We do confiscate without citing, including people with medical cards,” Messaros wrote in an email. “Most of these are fake that we run into.”
Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the primary marijuana issue in national parks was pot being grown illegally. Yosemite rangers seized 7,428 mature marijuana plants growing inside the park in a 2007 raid.
Legalization should help take care of that issue, Tvert said.
“When it comes to national parks, there will be a drop in the amount of marijuana being illegally grown because it will now be grown in regulated, legal facilities,” Tvert said.